Ever since I was a teenager, I have struggled with depression. While my actual diagnosis is Bipolar II Disorder with severe anxiety, it largely manifests as depression. Sometimes it is just there in the background as a small voice in my head saying that things aren’t ok; other times it is crippling, making small things like getting out of bed Herculean feats.
I have spent much of the past few years working on ways to better cope with these periods of depression, and one thing helps me more than nearly everything else: travel. This seems almost counter-intuitive. After all, if getting up and taking basic care of my needs is difficult, how can I manage to travel at all, let alone use it as a method of controlling my depression? I answered the first question at length in a previous article, Traveling With a Mood Disorder, but I wanted to dedicate some time to the second.
Note: I am not a professional, so all of what I am going to talk about is theory based on my personal experience. What works for me may be an anomaly, and my views on this should not be mistaken for scientific fact.
In Nara, Japan kicking it with the sacred deer
There is a reason few four year olds seem to struggle with depression. To a small child, the world is new. At every turn there are new things to see, to discover, to learn, and to play with. Language needs that same care, as most people around will use words, idioms, and tones that a child will not easily understand. As a result, much more of a child’s brain is occupied with deciphering the world and people around him or her, leaving little to spiral into negativity.
When I travel, I am much like that four year old. I find myself constantly looking around me, seeing things for the first time. I think about the buildings, the landscapes, the people, absorbed in trying to place these new discoveries into the context of my life and experiences. Simple things like walking down the street require some attention, much more so than in my normal life. Do people here walk on the left side of the sidewalk or the right? Do they wait for a signal to cross the street? If I step off the curb, am I going to be hit by a car? What kinds of trees are those? What company owns that pretty building? What do people here do with their trash? How do I hail a taxi? What is the polite way to pass by these people who are walking slower than I want to? All of these questions and more invade my consciousness constantly, and they replace my normal questions about life, the future, and relationships, things that tend to lead into a depression spiral.
When I travel, I try to get a feel for the language. How to people greet each other? What words can I decipher? How do I communicate with this waiter or cashier? How do I ask for directions? Even in a place in which English is the commonly spoken language, accents can force me to pay closer attention. And turns of phrase are certainly different.
For many people struggling with depression, distraction can be a temporary relief. But what makes travel better for me is that it goes well beyond distraction to complete immersion. Even when returning to my hotel or apartment at the end of the day, that immersion continues. What am I doing tomorrow? What are the television channels here? What are the sounds here that are different from home? The thermostat is in Celsius, so what is the conversion rate?
Immersing myself in this gator outside of New Orleans
While travel and immersion aren’t a cure for my depression, and of course I still have days where I feel down, it tends to be significantly better when I am off on an adventure – even if the adventure is only a short drive away.